Hilary Sharp escapes the sprawling destruction of ski resorts and heads to the Dauphiné Alps for some low-impact snowshoeing.
It was the last trek of summer – and after some fabulous remote hiking we arrived at the Colle Supérieur de la Cime Bianche, on the edge of the Cervinia ski resort. Our joy on reaching the col was tempered by the scene of destruction that greeted us: bulldozed gravel pistes (complete with bulldozers) criss-crossed a hillside splattered with ski infrastructure. Occasional wild flowers held on for dear life and the Italian face of the Matterhorn rose up beyond, oblivious to the squalor below.
Whilst this area is stunning in the depths of winter – when deep snow hides much of the damage – it seems that the local councils are totally in thrall to the needs, and money, of skiers. Money speaks; the winter season lasts for five months and is the main alpine money earner– they weren’t kidding when they nicknamed snow ‘white gold’.
Is it possible to enjoy winter sports without trashing the countryside for the rest of the year? Some ski resorts have remained fairly unspoilt (by not using machine-created pistes) and anyone who skis away from resorts will be aware that skiing a slope doesn’t stop the vegetation growing in the snow-free seasons. But for those who wish to escape the ski circus, there are far quieter ways to enjoy the winter – with much less impact on the environment, and your body.
Many hikers find summer walking, especially the descents, an ordeal for the joints – our bodies are only made to last forty years yet we expect performance for twice that – and so turn to snowshoeing. This is has to be the ultimate low-impact mountain activity and your creaky joints will thank you.
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There are snowshoe hikes within ski resorts, but generally ski areas don’t welcome snowshoers and you’re not experiencing a wild environment. Last year we spent a morning enjoying amazing views of Monte Bianco from the hamlet of La Suche near Courmayuer, the edge taken off by thumping rap beats echoing out of the ski lifts of nearby Courmayeur. If you want to get away then you’ll need to leave the ski areas well behind – and if you want to be properly green then you’ll want to arrive by public transport. This is not always possible for snowshoeing but one place it works very well is the Dauphiné Alps near Briançon.
This old fort town, easily accessible by train, is situated to the east of the Ecrins: a huge glaciated massif formed by giant peaks such as the Meije, Mont Pelvoux and the Barre des Ecrins. Just east of Briançon, the Vallée de la Clarée heads north then turns west at Névache (1,600m), the roadhead in winter with a regular bus service from Briançon. From there the valley continues pushing its way between the spiky, almost Dolomitic, peaks of the Cerces range to finally reach its terminus just above 2,000m.
Snowshoe possibilities abound. The main valley is taken until you choose to head off (left or right) up to higher cwms, where there are great little mountain huts above the tree line. There’s not a ski lift in sight, just snowy mountains made for snowshoeing. Anytime from January to Easter is good, the earlier months giving good cold snow conditions but shorter days, whilst later in the season allows longer trips right up the valley to the Refuge des Drayères.
There are some great walks from the first two refuges encountered high on the south side of the valley – the Chalet de Buffère and the Auberge du Chardonnet. From Buffère in January we did the Col de Buffère (2.427m) in wonderful cold snow. From Chardonnet there are numerous possibilities, including the classic Col de Chardonnet (2.638m) and the Col du Raisin (2,691m), all with spectacular views of the Ecrins. The terrain around both huts provides a perfect snowshoe playground and, after an ascent in soft snow, the descent will provide the perfect opportunity to fine tune your running and tumbling techniques. There are chamois to be seen and the forest is home to birds, foxes and squirrels.
After these charming huts it may be time to gird your loins and turn your sights to the distant head of the valley. To reach the Refuge des Drayères you walk along the main track next to the river, through several old hamlets. You should be prepared for a less luxurious night at this hut (owned by the Club Alpin Français) but when I last went the welcome was very friendly and the food ‘correct’.
The Col des Muandes (2,828m), to the north-east of the hut, is a good objective in clear visibility and is popular with ski tourers and snowshoers alike. An early morning departure will allow you to watch the sun rise on the rocky faces of the Cerces summits. The pass is popular as an objective in itself but also because it gives access to Mont Thabor (3,178m); from the pass you’ll get a good view of this peak with a chapel perched high on the summit slopes. The Roche du Chardonnet (2,950m) is an obvious summit to be done from the col, involving a short traverse left then a climb to its rocky top (usually without snowshoes). The views are stunning: the Meije, the Barre des Ecrins, Thabor and Monte Viso.
Having climbed up, the best is yet to come: the descent. In deep snow these slopes do not disappoint and are quickly dispensed with by a variety of techniques, the most effective being a bounding run in deep powder. You could extend your outing with an early morning walk up the col behind the hut. If your timing is right, you’ll reach the col as the sun appears and, after basking in its welcome rays, you can leap back down the slopes to the valley and your long walk out, watching dippers busily dipping and cross country skiers poling.
In the Val Clarée, all winter sports can be enjoyed in harmony. Everyone is welcome, you’re all there for the same thing: to enjoy the mountains in winter without spoiling them.
Hilary Sharp lives near Chamonix. She offers guided trekking winter and summer ( www.trekkinginthealps.com) and is the author of a series of guidebooks covering snowshoeing, walking and other mountain activities in the Alps – available in the BMC shop
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